How gender is shaping 2018 midterms

Getty Images

The 2018 primary season is officially underway, and that means gender is already shaping campaigns and media coverage. Among the top headlines following the nation’s first primary in Texas was that more than half of the 53 women running for Congress won nominations or qualified for runoffs. In several races, women will face off against each other.

With or without a woman on the ballot, gender dynamics have always played an important, if complicated, role in electoral politics. In 2015, we launched a groundbreaking project to illuminate and track the influence of gender during an unprecedented presidential campaign. We’ve just launched a new project, Gender Watch 2018, to provide expert analysis and perspective on gender in the national midterm elections.

{mosads}This year, the focus is not on one woman’s quest to break the glass ceiling, but on the record-breaking tide of women running for office. Predictions of a wave of women overtaking Congress may still be premature, but one thing is indisputable: like 2016, the 2018 campaign is already dramatically changing the conversation about gender in American politics. 


And gender doesn’t just mean women. In 2016, we watched as candidates and voters, male and female, grappled with the dominance of masculinity in presidential politics. Toxic masculinity — the weaponization of gender — fueled Donald Trump’s campaign as he belittled his opponents in the primaries and the general election. At the same time, Hillary Clinton’s and Carly Fiorina’s candidacies challenged voters to think beyond the usual stereotypes of what a president looks like. 

All of this year’s candidates will navigate a maze of gender stereotypes and expectations along the campaign trail. Will toxic masculinity be a successful campaign tactic — or will it backfire with voters? Will the diverse slate of women running alter voters’ expectations of what candidates and officeholders look like?

The media has a key role to play in shaping these narratives. As usual, in 2016, the media and voters held women candidates on both sides of aisle to a higher standard than their male counterparts, particularly in terms of their likability, ethics, and authenticity. That is consistent with our research, which shows that likeability has a stronger influence on voters’ perceptions of women candidates than of men.

Ethics matter more, too. As the nation reckons with an epidemic of sexual harassment, women running for office may be tempted to position themselves as the ethically superior choice. However, this tactic comes with high risks. Women candidates are often placed on a “virtue pedestal” by the media and the public, only to be toppled by heightened scrutiny. Women candidates who are knocked off the pedestal have further to climb to regain voters’ trust, if they do at all. 

There are other ways that campaigning amidst the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements may affect candidates in 2018. Those accused of bullying, harassment, and assault are facing more severe consequences than ever before. Activists today have an even bigger megaphone and a common platform to call out bad behavior — including offenses by campaign staff and supporters — than they did in elections past. This is fraught territory. However, it may work to the benefit of women candidates targeted by unfair attacks from opponents and the media. Today, women everywhere are finding a powerful, grassroots movement rising to their defense.

As always, it will be up to voters to decide. Any suggestion of a unified “women’s vote” was dispelled in 2016 — an important reminder that traditionally, party affiliation outweighs gender. Still, gender remains an implicit and inescapable lens through which we all see the world.

Elections are an opportunity for Americans to express their values regarding political leadership. Yet, political leadership has been limited to a slate of (mostly male) candidates who are able to run, and who have access to the resources and network necessary to win. With more diverse candidates stepping up this year, Americans have the chance to tell a different story in 2018. Whatever happens is history in the making, and we at Gender Watch 2018 are excited to add our analysis and perspective to this momentous next chapter.

Barbara Lee is the founder and president of The Barbara Lee Family Foundation.

Debbie Walsh is director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

Combined, the organizations have 60 years’ experience researching women candidates.

Tags 2018 midterms 2018 primaries Barbara Lee Debbie Walsh Donald Trump female candidates Hillary Clinton

More Campaign News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video